Robbery Under Arms/Chapter 19

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179859Robbery Under Arms — Chapter 19Rolf Boldrewood


It took us a week's travelling or more to get to Berrima. Sometimes we were all night in the coach as well as all day. There were other passengers in the coach with us. Two or three bushmen, a station overseer with his wife and daughter, a Chinaman, and a lunatic that had come from Nomah, too. I think it's rough on the public to pack madmen and convicts in irons in the same coach with them. But it saves the Government a good deal of money, and the people don't seem to care. They stand it, anyhow.

We would have made a bolt of it if we'd had a chance, but we never had, night nor day, not half a one. The police were civil, but they never left us, and slept by us at night. That is, one watched while the other slept. We began to sleep soundly ourselves and to have a better appetite. Going through the fresh air had something to do with it, I daresay. And then there was no anxiety. We had played for a big stake and lost. Now we had to pay and make the best of it. It was the tenth day (there were no railways then to shorten the journey) when we drove up to the big gate and looked at the high walls and dark, heavy lines of Berrima Gaol, the largest, the most severe, the most dreaded of all the prisons in New South Wales. It had leaked out the day before, somehow, that the famous Starlight and the other prisoner in the great Momberah cattle robbery were to be brought in this particular day. There was a fair-sized crowd gathered as we were helped down from the coach. At the side of the crowd was a small mob of blacks with their dogs, spears, 'possum rugs and all complete. They and their gins and pickaninnies appeared to take great notice of the whole thing. One tallish gin, darker than the others, and with her hair tucked under an old bonnet, wrapped her 'possum cloak closely round her shoulders and pushed up close to us. She looked hard at Starlight, who appeared not to see her. As she drew back some one staggered against her; an angry scowl passed over her face, so savage and bitter that I felt quite astonished. I should have been astonished, I mean, if I had not been able, by that very change, to know again the restless eyes and grim set mouth of Warrigal.

It was only a look, and he was gone. The lock creaked, the great iron door swung back, and we were swallowed up in a tomb—a stone vault where men are none the less buried because they have separate cells. They do not live, though they appear to be alive; they move, and sometimes speak, and appear to hear words. Some have to be sent away and buried outside. They have been dead a long time, but have not seemed to want putting in the ground. That makes no change in them—not much, I mean. If they sleep it's all right; if they don't sleep anything must be happiness after the life they have escaped. `Happy are the dead' is written on all prison walls.

What I suffered in that first time no tongue can tell. I can't bear now to think of it and put it down. The solitary part of it was enough to drive any man mad that had been used to a free life. Day after day, night after night, the same and the same and the same over again.

Then the dark cells. I got into them for a bit. I wasn't always as cool as I might be—more times that mad with myself that I could have smashed my own skull against the wall, let alone any one else's. There was one of the warders I took a dislike to from the first, and he to me, I don't doubt. I thought he was rough and surly. He thought I wanted to have my own way, and he made it up to take it out of me, and run me every way he could. We had a goodish spell of fighting over it, but he gave in at last. Not but what I'd had a lot to bear, and took a deal of punishment before he jacked up. I needn't have had it. It was all my own obstinacy and a sort of dogged feeling that made me feel I couldn't give in. I believe it done me good, though. I do really think I should have gone mad else, thinking of the dreadful long months and years that lay before me without a chance of getting out.

Sometimes I'd take a low fit and refuse my food, and very near give up living altogether. The least bit more, and I'd have died outright. One day there was a party of ladies and gentlemen came to be shown over the gaol. There was a lot of us passing into the exercise yard. I happened to look up for a minute, and saw one of the ladies looking steadily at us, and oh! what a pitying look there was in her face. In a moment I saw it was Miss Falkland, and, by the change that came into her face, that she knew me again, altered as I was. I wondered how she could have known me. I was a different-looking chap from when she had seen me last. With a beastly yellow-gray suit of prison clothes, his face scraped smooth every day, like a fresh-killed pig, and the look of a free man gone out of his face for ever—how any woman, gentle or simple, ever can know a man in gaol beats me. Whether or no, she knew me. I suppose she saw the likeness to Jim, and she told him, true enough, she'd never forget him nor what he'd done for her.

I just looked at her, and turned my head away. I felt as if I'd make a fool of myself if I didn't. All the depth down that I'd fallen since I was shearing there at Boree rushed into my mind at once. I nearly fell down, I know. I was pretty weak and low then; I'd only just come out of the doctor's hands.

I was passing along with the rest of the mob. I heard her voice quite clear and firm, but soft and sweet, too. How sweet it sounded to me then!

`I wish to speak a few words to the third prisoner in the line—the tall one. Can I do so, Captain Wharton?'

`Oh! certainly, Miss Falkland,' said the old gentleman, who had brought them all in to look at the wonderful neat garden, and the baths, and the hospital, and the unnatural washed-up, swept-up barracks that make the cleanest gaol feel worse than the roughest hut. He was the visiting magistrate, and took a deal of interest in the place, and believed he knew all the prisoners like a book. `Oh! certainly, my dear young lady. Is Richard Marston an acquaintance of yours?'

`He and his brother worked for my father at Boree,' she said, quite stately. `His brother saved my life.'

I was called back by the warder. Miss Falkland stepped out before them all, and shook hands with me. Yes, she shook hands with me, and the tears came into her eyes as she did so.

If anything could have given a man's heart a turn the right way that would have done it. I felt again as if some one cared for me in the world, as if I had a soul worth saving. And people may talk as they like, but when a man has the notion that everybody has given him up as a bad job, and has dropped troubling themselves about him, he gets worse and worse, and meets the devil half-way.

She said—

`Richard Marston, I cannot tell how grieved I am to see you here. Both papa and I were so sorry to hear all about those Momberah cattle.'

I stammered out something or other, I hardly knew what.

She looked at me again with her great beautiful eyes like a wondering child.

`Is your brother here too?'

`No, Miss Falkland,' I said. `They've never caught Jim yet, and, what's more, I don't think they will. He jumped on a bare-backed horse without saddle or bridle, and got clear.'

She looked as if she was going to smile, but she didn't. I saw her eyes sparkle, though, and she said softly—

`Poor Jim! so he got away; I am glad of that. What a wonderful rider he was! But I suppose he will be caught some day. Oh, I do so wish I could say anything that would make you repent of what you have done, and try and do better by and by. Papa says you have a long life before you most likely, and might do so much with it yet. You will try, for my sake; won't you now?'

`I'll do what I can, miss,' I said; `and if I ever see Jim again I'll tell him of your kindness.'

`Thank you, and good-bye,' she said, and she held out her hand again and took mine. I walked away, but I couldn't help holding my head higher, and feeling a different man, somehow.

I ain't much of a religious chap, wasn't then, and I am farther off it now than ever, but I've heard a power of the Bible and all that read in my time; and when the parson read out next Sunday about Jesus Christ dying for men, and wanting to have their souls saved, I felt as if I could have a show of understanding it better than I ever did before. If I'd been a Catholic, like Aileen and mother, I should have settled what the Virgin Mary was like when she was alive, and never said a prayer to her without thinking of Miss Falkland.

While I was dying one week and getting over it another, and going through all the misery every fellow has in his first year of gaol, Starlight was just his old self all the time. He took it quite easy, never gave any one trouble, and there wasn't a soul in the place that wouldn't have done anything for him. The visiting magistrate thought his a most interesting case, and believed in his heart that he had been the means of turning him from the error of his ways—he and the chaplain between them, anyhow. He even helped him to be allowed to be kept a little separate from the other prisoners (lest they should contaminate him!), and in lots of ways made his life a bit easier to him.

It was reported about that it was not the first time that he had been in a gaol. That he'd `done time', as they call it, in another colony. He might or he might not. He never said. And he wasn't the man, with all his soft ways, you'd like to ask about such a thing.

By the look of it you wouldn't think he cared about it a bit. He took it very easy, read half his time, and had no sign about him that he wasn't perfectly satisfied. He intended when he got out to lead a new life, the chaplain said, and be the means of keeping other men right and straight.

One day we had a chance of a word together. He got the soft side of the chaplain, who thought he wanted to convert me and take me out of my sulky and obstinate state of mind. He took good care that we were not overheard or watched, and then said rather loud, for fear of accidents—

`Well, Richard, how are you feeling? I am happy to say that I have been led to think seriously of my former evil ways, and I have made up my mind, besides, to use every effort in my power to clear out of this infernal collection of tombstones when the moon gets dark again, about the end of this month.'

`How have you taken to become religious?' I said. `Are you quite sure that what you say can be depended upon? And when did you get the good news?'

`I have had many doubts in my mind for a long time,' he said, `and have watched and prayed long, and listened for the word that was to come; and the end of it is that I have at length heard the news that makes the soul rejoice, even for the heathen, the boy Warrigal, who will be waiting outside these walls with fresh horses. I must now leave you, my dear Richard,' he said; `and I hope my words will have made an impression on you. When I have more to communicate for your good I will ask leave to return.'

After I heard this news I began to live again. Was there a chance of our getting out of this terrible tomb into the free air and sunshine once more? However it was to be managed I could not make out. I trusted mostly to Starlight, who seemed to know everything, and to be quite easy about the way it would all turn out.

All that I could get out of him afterwards was that on a certain night a man would be waiting with two horses outside of the gaol wall; and that if we had the luck to get out safe, and he thought we should, we would be on their backs in three minutes, and all the police in New South Wales wouldn't catch us once we got five minutes' start.

This was all very well if it came out right; but there was an awful lot to be done before we were even near it. The more I began to think over it the worse it looked; sometimes I quite lost heart, and believed we should never have half a chance of carrying out our plan.

We knew from the other prisoners that men had tried from time to time, to get away. Three had been caught. One had been shot dead—he was lucky—another had fallen off the wall and broke his leg. Two had got clear off, and had never been heard of since.

We were all locked up in our cells every evening, and at five o'clock, too. We didn't get out till six in the morning; a long, long time. Cold enough in the bitter winter weather, that had then come in, and a long, weary, wretched time to wait and watch for daylight.

Well, first of all, we had to get the cell door open. That was the easiest part of the lot. There's always men in a big gaol that all kinds of keys and locks are like large print to. They can make most locks fly open like magic; what's more, they're willing to do it for anybody else, or show them how. It keeps their hand in; they have a pleasure in spiting those above them whenever they can do it.

The getting out of the cell was easy enough, but there was a lot of danger after you had got out. A passage to cross, where the warder, with his rifle, walked up and down every half-hour all night; then a big courtyard; then another smaller door in the wall; then the outer yard for those prisoners who are allowed to work at stone-cutting or out-of-door trades.

After all this there was the great outer wall to climb up and drop down from on the other side.

We managed to pick our night well. A French convict, who liked that sort of thing, gave me the means of undoing the cell door. It was three o'clock in the morning, when in winter most people are sleepy that haven't much on their minds. The warder that came down the passage wasn't likely to be asleep, but he might have made it up in his mind that all was right, and not taken as much notice as usual. This was what we trusted to. Besides, we had got a few five-pound notes smuggled in to us; and though I wouldn't say that we were able to bribe any of the gaolers, we didn't do ourselves any harm in one or two little ways by throwing a few sovereigns about.

I did just as I was told by the Frenchman, and I opened the cell door as easy as a wooden latch. I had to shut it again for fear the warder would see it and begin to search and sound the alarm at once. Just as I'd done this he came down the passage. I had only time to crouch down in the shadow when he passed me. That was right; now he would not be back for half-an-hour.

I crawled and scrambled, and crept along like a snake until little by little I got to the gate through the last wall but one. The lock here was not so easy as the cell door, and took me more time. While I stood there I was in a regular tremble with fright, thinking some one might come up, and all my chance would be gone. After a bit the lock gave way, and I found myself in the outer yard. I went over to the wall and crept along it till I came to one of the angles. There I was to meet Starlight. He was not there, and he was to bring some spikes to climb the wall with, and a rope, with two or three other things.

I waited and waited for half-an-hour, which seemed a month. What was I to do if he didn't come? I could not climb the thirty-foot wall by myself. One had to be cautious, too, for there were towers at short distances along the wall; in every one of these a warder, armed with a rifle, which he was sure to empty at any one that looked like gaol-breaking. I began to think he had made a mistake in the night. Then, that he had been discovered and caught the moment he tried to get out of the cell. I was sure to be caught if he was prevented from coming; and shutting up would be harder to bear than ever.

Then I heard a man's step coming up softly; I knew it was Starlight. I knew his step, and thought I would always tell it from a thousand other men's; it was so light and firm, so quick and free. Even in a prison it was different from other men's; and I remembered everything he had ever said about walking and running, both of which he was wonderfully good at.

He was just as cool as ever. `All right, Dick; take these spikes.' He had half-a-dozen stout bits of iron; how ever he got them I know no more than the dead, but there they were, and a light strong coil of rope as well. I knew what the spikes were for, of course; to drive into the wall between the stones and climb up by. With the rope we were to drop ourselves over the wall the other side. It was thirty feet high—no fool of a drop. More than one man had been picked up disabled at the bottom of it. He had a short stout piece of iron that did to hammer the spikes in; and that had to be done very soft and quiet, you may be sure.

It took a long time. I thought the night would be over and the daylight come before it was all done; it was so slow. I could hear the tick-tack of his iron every time he knocked one of the spikes in. Of course he went higher every time. They were just far enough apart for a man to get his foot on from one to another. As he went up he had one end of the coil of the rope round his wrist. When he got to the top he was to draw it up to fasten to the top spike, and lower himself down by it to the ground on the other side. At last I felt him pull hard on the rope. I held it, and put my foot on the first spike. I don't know that I should have found it so very easy in the dark to get up by the spikes—it was almost blackfellows' work, when they put their big toe into a notch cut in the smooth stem of a gum tree that runs a hundred feet without a branch, and climb up the outside of it—but Jim and I had often practised this sort of climbing when we were boys, and were both pretty good at it. As for Starlight, he had been to sea when he was young, and could climb like a cat.

When I got to the top I could just see his head above the wall. The rope was fastened well to the top spike, which was driven almost to the head into the wall. Directly he saw me, he began to lower himself down the rope, and was out of sight in a minute. I wasn't long after him, you may be sure. In my hurry I let the rope slip through my hands so fast they were sore for a week afterwards. But I didn't feel it then. I should hardly have felt it if I had cut them in two, for as my feet touched the ground in the darkness I heard the stamp of a horse's hoof and the jingle of a bit—not much of a sound, but it went through my heart like a knife, along with the thought that I was a free man once more; that is, free in a manner of speaking. I knew we couldn't be taken then, bar accidents, and I felt ready to ride through a regiment of soldiers.

As I stood up a man caught my hand and gave it a squeeze as if he'd have crushed my fingers in. I knew it was Jim. Of course, I'd expected him to be there, but wasn't sure if he'd be able to work it. We didn't speak, but started to walk over to where two horses were standing, with a man holding 'em. It was pretty dark, but I could see Rainbow's star—just in his forehead it was—the only white he had about him. Of course it was Warrigal that was holding them.

`We must double-bank my horse,' whispers Jim, `for a mile or two, till we're clear of the place; we didn't want to bring a lot of horses about.'

He jumped up, and I mounted behind him. Starlight was on Rainbow in a second. The half-caste disappeared, he was going to keep dark for a few days and send us the news. Jim's horse went off as if he had only ten stone on his back instead of pretty nigh five-and-twenty. And we were free! Lord God! to think that men can be such fools as ever to do anything of their own free will and guiding that puts their liberty in danger when there's such a world outside of a gaol wall—such a heaven on earth as long as a man's young and strong, and has all the feelings of a free man, in a country like this. Would I do the first crooked thing again if I had my life to live over again, and knew a hundredth part of what I know now? Would I put my hand in the fire out of laziness or greed? or sit still and let a snake sting me, knowing I should be dead in twelve hours? Any man's fool enough to do one that'll do the other. Men and women don't know this in time, that's the worst of it; they won't believe half they're told by them that do know and wish 'em well. They run on heedless and obstinate, too proud to take advice, till they do as we did. The world's always been the same, I suppose, and will to the end. Most of the books say so, anyway.